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Winter Olympics: The fast and hairy world of sled dog racing

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Winter Olympics: The fast and hairy world of sled dog racing

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For the most part, a dog is man’s best friend.

But for a select few, they are also part and parcel of a competitive sport – welcome to the world of sled dog racing.

Making its debut as a demonstration sport at the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, 90 years later, the sport is still alive and barking as dogs pull their harnessed handlers, or mushers, on courses through the world.

Most popular in the Arctic regions of North America and Europe, any mention of sledding and the dog breeds involved – huskies, malamutes and similar Nordic breeds – are always associated with snow.

Yet Matt Hodgson, Britain’s first world champion in purebred sled dog racing, is living proof that a relative lack of snow is no barrier to success when passion is at stake.

The deadly sins

Based in the sometimes cold but rarely arctic south-east of England, Hodgson developed his childhood fascination with dogs from the Far North into Infury Dogs – a sled dog team that won five medals.

Hodgson quotes Jack London’s 1903 novel The Call of the Wild as one of her early influences, an interest that quickly turned into love with the arrival of her first dog, Ranger – an Alaskan Malamute pup – in 2005.

These days, Hodgson runs with his pack of six “deadly sins” – all dogs are named after one of the seven biblical vices.

It’s an etymology that seems extremely harsh given their impeccable training and talent, not to mention their cuteness – compounded by the arrival of two adorable Greenland Dog puppies, Nimis (gluttony) and Pride, in February from the last year.

Still, there is a method to the madness, says Hodgson. Having intended to name his first sled dog – assumed to be a female – Envy, Hodgson was forced to rethink when his Canadian Eskimo dog was born male.

Invidia, the Latin origin of “envy”, was the replacement name of choice and later set a trend, although Hodgson assures that “these are my ‘deadly sins’ rather than deadly sins”.

entertaining deer

No rest for the bad guys then, because the training starts at an early age.

“First of all, they’re my pets, so they have to be good dogs,” Hodgson told CNN Sport, with all dogs taking part in puppy classes to foster good behavior and sociability, throwing the toboggan bases further. line.

The training builds gradually over a two year period – after six months the puppies are allowed to run free alongside the adults before being ‘hooked’ towards the end of the races a few months later to get a feel for the harness.

Winter Olympics: The fast and hairy world of sled dog racing

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A gradual buildup is crucial and each dog varies, says Hodgson, but within a year dogs can start competing at the club level. Between 15 and 18 months, the international level is essential.

Members of the public wandering through the forests of East Sussex at unsociable hours may be lucky enough to catch the Infury Dogs running during one of these sessions, with Hodgson having a license to run on Forestry England lands at certain times – usually at less busy times – in order to fill his impressive five to six training days a week.

You may hear cries of “Haw!” and “Gee!” as the dogs turned left and right, Hodgson, without reins or a physical connection to the pack, had to rely solely on verbal commands, taught by constant reinforcement.

If you’re very lucky, you may even catch Hodgson “wrapped around a tree” when the dogs spot a spinning rabbit or deer.

“Most of the time they listen,” laughs Hodgson. “It’s part of the fact that you run with animals rather than a machine.”

Winter Olympics: The fast and hairy world of sled dog racing

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Gold Medal Collectors

In competition, however, the Infury Dogs are truly machines.

Hodgson – who tends to race “short” races of up to eight kilometers (almost five miles), depending on the terrain – has amassed five medals for Britain since his first international outing in 2015.

Its crowning glory came in 2019 when the relatively inexperienced Infury team claimed victory at the UK’s first world championships – becoming Team GB’s first ever world champion in sled dog racing. purebred.

Winter Olympics: The fast and hairy world of sled dog racing

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Yet for Hodgson, self-proclaimed “consistently last” on his first international outings, winning was never the top priority.

Although disrupted by the pandemic – with a trip to Belgium in December canceled following the Covid push of the Omicron variant – the sport has taken Hodgson and his dogs around the world.

Agreeing to travel restrictions, Sweden calls the World Championships in March, with the tantalizing prospect of competing at the Östersund Ski Stadium in Östersund.

“I love dogs and the dogs enjoy it so much – if they didn’t enjoy it, they wouldn’t run around and it wouldn’t be a lot of fun,” Hodgson said.

“I love the camaraderie, I love the social elements, and I love sharing my love of dogs with people who also love dogs, so it’s a coming together of different people. It’s good to do well, but that’s not the main thing.”

Winter Olympics: The fast and hairy world of sled dog racing

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An Olympic return?

Now, 10 years from the 100th anniversary of sled dog racing at the Winter Olympics as a demonstration sport, discussions continue to swirl about the sport’s return to the Games.

Hodgson says the International Federation of Sled Dog Sports (IFSS) has petitioned the International Olympic Committee (IOC), but he has his own reservations about the sport’s suitability for Olympic status – fearing a “Pandora’s box ” opened by logistics, finances and the very nature of the sport.

“Trying to take tons of dogs and travel from North America or somewhere in the world, it’s so expensive and there’s no money in it,” Hodgson said.

“There are so many distances, so many categories – which one do you choose? Will it be husky teams or greyhound crossbreed teams? What distances will they run? Does it reflect the sport ?”

“Then there’s the question, ‘Are the Olympics about human sport? Is this really human athletics?

Yet theoretically given the chance to compete in “his version” of the sport, Hodgson would “absolutely adore” representing GB at the Games.

Until then, it’s the race through the forests – and the occasional tree – in East Sussex for Hodgson and his “Deadly Sins”.

Winter Olympics: The fast and hairy world of sled dog racing

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